NEW YORK A judge signaled yesterday that he would order the release in the coming months of much of the secret testimony in the notorious espionage case against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
But U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein said he would make an exception for a pivotal witness whose questionable testimony helped send Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair: her now 86-year-old brother.
The decision on the brother, David Greenglass, came at a Manhattan hearing at which leading historical groups argued that the biggest spy case of the Cold War era was important enough to qualify for a rare exception to secrecy rules protecting grand jury testimony.
Prosecutors already had consented to the unsealing of transcripts for 36 of the 46 grand jury witnesses’ testimonies that were requested by historians. Since the 36 witnesses were dead or gave permission for the disclosure, the judge didn’t bother to address those transcripts yesterday and was expected to formalize their release today in a written order.
But in the case of three living witnesses who objected Greenglass and two lesser figures the judge said he agreed with the government’s stance that their privacy “overrides the public’s need to know.” He cited letters to the court from an attorney for Greenglass claiming the case still haunts his family.
Greenglass and his wife, Ruth Greenglass, after confessing to being part of a scheme to smuggle atomic secrets to the Soviets, agreed to testify against the Rosenbergs. During the 1951 trial, the couple linked Ethel Rosenberg to the plot by saying they saw her transcribing the stolen research data on a portable typewriter in her New York apartment.
By cooperating, David Greenglass, a wartime machinist in Los Alamos, N.M., was spared a possible death sentence and served 10 years in prison. Ruth Greenglass, who died this year, was never charged.
The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953.
Since then, decoded Soviet cables have seemed to confirm that Julius Rosenberg was a spy, but doubts have remained about Ethel Rosenberg’s involvement.
Georgetown University law professor David Vladeck, who represented the historical groups, argued yesterday that David Greenglass forfeited his right to keep his testimony secret by “thrusting himself” into the limelight with news-media interviews in recent years. In the interviews, Greenglass said he made up the trial account about the typewriter to protect his wife and she may have improvised the tale to appease prosecutors.
“If indeed the government was a party to that, then the public needs to know,” Vladeck said.
The judge responded that Greenglass “may be a hypocrite. He may be a liar. ... But does that cause me to release grand jury testimony?”
Afterward, Vladeck still called the judge’s position on the other witnesses “very good news.” He predicted the transcripts would be made public in the fall.
The judge reserved decision regarding the testimony of seven missing Rosenberg witnesses pending further efforts to confirm that they are either dead or will never be located. He also said he needed more information before ruling on a request to disclose grand jury material from another Cold War spy case, that of Abraham Brothman and Miriam Moskowitz.
Unlike the Rosenberg case, the Brothman/Moskowitz prosecution, based on Brothman’s testimony before a grand jury about an admitted Soviet spy, is not a case whose place in history justifies departing from the time-honored rule of grand jury secrecy, federal prosecutors argued. Brothman received a seven-year prison sentence; Moskowitz received a two-year sentence.
Among those seeking release of the material in the Rosenberg and Brothman/Moskowitz cases were the National Security Archive based at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., the American Historical Association, the American Society for Legal History, the Organization of American Historians and the Society of American Archivists.